The Public Square
Richard John Neuhaus
Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 98 (December 1999): 68-88.
Liberalism Without a Left, Conservatism Without Delusions
In the view of conservatives, liberals are in the saddle. In the view of liberals, conservatives are in the saddle, or at least threaten to take things over. There is no "us" without a "them," and it’s hard to ginger up passion for our cause without believing that theirs is winning. So has it always been, and so, until Our Lord returns in glory, will it probably always be. Inveighing into this endless discussion comes social historian Russell Jacoby with a passionate new book, The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy (Basic Books, $26). His claim is that, without a utopian vision, liberalism perishes. Or as he puts it, "A left constituted the liberal backbone; as the left vaporized, the backbone went soft."
In the last decade, the collapse of communism and the stagnation of "social democracy" in Europe have deprived the left of any credible proposal for radical change. Even modest programs of redistributionism have been abandoned as intellectuals on the left have wasted their energies in promoting multiculturalist distractions, obscurantist cultural studies that have turned the academy into a narcissistic playpen, and communitarian platitudes that claim to bridge the divide between left and right. According to Jacoby, liberal theorists such as Richard Rorty and Charles Taylor have embraced a relativism that denies to the claims of justice any public purchase. (Although his call for a new left is in important respects similar to Rorty’s plea in Achieving Our Country. See Public Square, March 1999.) Jacoby’s conclusion is that without a real left that promotes a combination of high culture, radically democratic politics, and economic equality, liberalism is dead.
Andrew Sullivan is having none of it. Liberalism, he believes, has greatly benefited by the end of the utopian romanticism espoused by Jacoby. He asks, "Is it not truer, in the spirit of Isaiah Berlin, that it is the abandonment of utopia that makes liberalism possible?" Liberalism, Sullivan says, is concern for pluralism, fairness, and freedom. "For all the talk of the end of ideology, there are still plenty of causes." He offers this list of causes, on which I comment in brackets. "There is genocide again in Europe [No there isn’t, unless one debases the term to mean perennial ethnic and religious conflicts]; there is economic inequality at home [There always will be; the question is whether there is greater economic opportunity]; civil rights are not assured for all Americans [Sullivan’s particular campaign is for same–sex marriage]; civil liberties have had a terrible decade [I’m not sure what he means; perhaps new and intrusive antiterrorist laws in the Clinton era]; the racial question remains and festers [Undoubtedly true, although it is currently festering below fever level]."
I expect that Jacoby would say that Sullivan’s very moderate liberalism pretty much fits what he calls "an age of apathy." The striking thing about this dispute between two articulate liberals is the very abstract level at which it is conducted. It is far removed from the on–the–ground political reality where conservatives have no difficulty at all in defining their cause in terms of conflicts over very specific policies. For a few examples: the protection of the unborn, the handicapped, and the dying; parental choice in education; tax and other policies supportive of marriage and the family; the defense of individual merit against quotas and related discriminations; the defense of property, civil, and religious rights against expansivist government control; and the vigorous affirmation of the achievements of Western culture, in opposition to multiculturalist fashions.
In the political and cultural worlds generally defined as conservative, there is no dispute comparable to that among theorists such as Sullivan, Jacoby, Rorty, and Taylor. Of course, they might say that is because conservatism is the stupid party and incapable of the big ideas necessary to fuel such disputes. And it is true that, except for a few libertarians, conservatives have no utopias to propose. In the spirit of Isaiah Berlin and Michael Oakeshott (incidentally, a mentor of Sullivan’s who sometimes appears to be incidental to him), conservatives have quite enough to do in coping with the assaults upon decency, justice, and common sense perpetrated by those who call themselves liberals. Liberals in the saddle can indulge in abstract disputes about the nature of the ideology that legitimizes their rule. The fact that liberals are in the saddle, on the other hand, provides a sufficient working definition of conservatism. Which means, of course, that conservatism is reactive, but not nearly so reactionary as the utopian leftisms that have been posited against almost everything in the world as it is.
Utopianisms—from Lenin to Mao, and with many lesser imitators in between—have been the bloody bane of the century past. Jacoby’s liberalism with a radical left backbone is incremental utopianism. Sullivan is right in saying that we are well rid of it—although, given the human propensity for grand delusions, utopianism will almost certainly reappear in different guise. Apart from his sexuality project, Sullivan is more accurately described as a conservative, albeit something of a closet conservative. Working as he does for the New Republic and the New York Times, he knows what is required to keep his place in the saddle.
Hope at the Heart of Horror
Theodicy—how to justify the ways of God to man—is an old intellectual chess game that goes on and on. An interesting replay is Richard Swinburne’s new book, Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford University Press). Swinburne is professor of the philosophy of religion at Oxford and, like innumerable writers before him, he begins with the conundrum that, in view of the reality of evil, God is either not omnipotent or not good. The alternative conclusion, of course, is that there is no God. Swinburne sets out to defend God’s omnipotence and goodness (although he is weak on God’s omniscience) by arguing that the evil in the world is necessary to the measure of good in the world, with good finally winning out over evil. Along the way, he poses fascinating thought experiments that will delight those interested in intellectual gambits. Very neatly done, for instance, is his argument that we would be less fully alive in a world in which there is only 10 percent of the evil that there is in the world as it is.
His line of reasoning is very close to that of Leibniz, that this is "the best of all possible worlds," except he agrees with Aquinas that God could have made other and different things, which would have resulted in a different and better world. The gist of the argument is Leibnizian, however, and, of its kind, it is very nicely executed. Its kind, however, is terribly bloodless. In the vortex of life as lived, it does not stand up to the experienced reality of, for instance, the Holocaust, or Stalin’s starvation of the Ukraine, or the death of a ten–year–old daughter by leukemia. In one way, this is not Swinburne’s fault. The fault is with the bloodless, syllogistic way in which the theodicy question is conventionally posed. It begins with a rationalistic assumption about the attributes of God—as though we know what omnipotence and goodness mean—and then we put that concept of God to the test of our experience of evil. Uncritically accepting that definition of the theodicy question, Swinburne gives worthy battle. But the God in question is the God of certain philosophers, not the God of history and revelation; certainly not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and most certainly not the crucified God incarnate.
To old–fashioned rationalists, whether skeptics or atheists, one can warmly recommend Providence and the Problem of Evil. The more honest among them will recognize that they are checked, if not checkmated, by Swinburne’s intellectual moves. But the great question of whether we can believe that God is both good and omnipotent is left at the level of a chess game, and reasonable people may think the game results in a draw. As I contend in a forthcoming book, Death on a Friday Afternoon, this falls far short of an encounter with the God of Israel who accepts defeat by our definition of the game in order to expose the error of our definition. It not only falls short; it is almost beside the point. Almost, but not quite. Swinburne scores important, and sometimes decisive, points in a theodicy argument wrongly framed. His book can serve the useful purpose of encouraging people to set that argument aside in order to move on to the mystery of cross and resurrection that are at the heart of the Christian reason for hope in the midst of the horror.
Proposing Democracy Anew—Part Three
In the first two parts of this reflection on the democratic prospect in the twenty–first century, I set forth seven of ten propositions—readily admitting that they could be subdivided or combined into more or less than ten. The first seven are: 1) The sovereignty of the democratic state is accountable to a higher sovereignty. 2) In a democratic society, we live under several and sometimes conflicting sovereignties. 3) The problems of democracy are inherent in democracy. 4) Democracy is and always will be unsatisfactory. 5) Democracy requires more than democratic institutions. 6) Democracy is more than majority rule. 7) Democracy presupposes that the legitimacy of positive law depends upon its compatibility with moral law.
Implicit in all that has been said so far, but perhaps needing to be said explicitly, is the understanding that the democratic state is necessarily a limited state. As we have seen, it is substantively limited by the acknowledgment of a higher sovereignty, and it is procedurally limited by the just claims of communities other than the state and by their role in the right ordering of society. The discernment and teaching of the moral law, for instance, is primarily the task of institutions such as the family and the church. In articulating that law, the role of the state is responsive rather than generative. The state is not a source of morality. More precisely, the state has no morality except the moral duty, legally defined, to give effect to the judgment of the people as expressed through the institutions of representative democracy.
Family, church, voluntary associations of all kinds—these are what I have frequently referred to as the "mediating institutions" of society (see To Empower People: From State to Civil Society, AEI Press, 1996). The mediating institutions stand between the autonomous individual and the "megastructures" of society, beginning with the state but including also corporate structures and others. The idea of "mediating institutions" is closely related to the Catholic doctrine of "subsidiarity." In my experience, that doctrine is little understood, even by Catholics. Too many have got it exactly backwards. They think it means the parceling out or "devolution" of state power to other institutions of society, rather than the inherent location of such powers and functions in what Centesimus Annus calls "the subjectivity of society." The doctrine of subsidiarity and the idea of mediating institutions mean that the proper subject of social decisions is the person and persons in community. Persons, individually and in free association with others, should make the decisions on matters most closely affecting them. This is the gist of the argument for "civil society" that has received so much attention in recent years.
In Response to Critics
Some conservative critics of the mediating institutions argument, I should note as an aside, complain that it, too, falls into the ideologically liberal trap of defining society in terms of only two entities, the state and the solitary individual, with mediating institutions being a fragile buffer between them. The complaint is based, I believe, on a misunderstanding. While the state is the chief "megastructure," it is joined by corporations, professional associations, organized labor, and a host of others. (Smaller people–to–people–sized businesses and labor unions, for instance, can also be more in the nature of mediating institutions.) More important, the complaint assumes that the argument understands the individual in terms of liberalism’s "autonomous self." That is not the case. By individual I mean the "acting person" (Karol Wojtyla) who also receives an identity that is mediated through communities that are inseparable from that continuing identity. In the Christian understanding, this happens at the deepest level by incorporation into the community of grace that is the Church.
Here, too, a clarification is in order with respect to the seventh proposal and touching on the megastructure that is the state. Evangelium Vitae accents the conflict between positive law and moral law on questions such as abortion, euthanasia, and the protection of those who cannot protect themselves. Those of us who champion laws for the protection of the unborn are accused of violating our own principles by wanting to expand the sphere of state power. Nothing could be further from the truth. The protection of innocent human life is the first responsibility of the limited state, and abortion is inescapably a public question. Again it is necessary to emphasize that the abortion debate is not over private opinions about when human life begins. That is not a moral or political question, nor is it a matter of private opinion. The question of when human life begins is indisputably and very publicly settled by science. The question of which human lives belong to the community that is protected by law is inescapably a political question. If politics is about how we ought to order our lives together, then abortion is the unavoidable political question of who belongs to the "we." It is not a private question but the most public of questions, namely, Whom do we include, and whom do we exclude, from the polis?
My eighth proposition: The separation of church and state does not mean and cannot mean the separation of religion from public life. That proposition is, of course, at the heart of this journal’s reason for being. Critics of the Supreme Court’s decisions on church–state questions routinely point out that "the separation of church and state" is not in the Constitution. That is certainly true, but the phrase has, for better and for worse, achieved a quasi–constitutional status. In recent years there are encouraging signs that the Court is moving away from extreme separationism to a doctrine of "equal regard," meaning that institutions and practices cannot be discriminated against simply because they are religious in nature. Yet there is no doubt that the separationist doctrine as applied by the courts in the last half of the twentieth century contributed powerfully to creating a naked public square.
Naked, Sacred, Civil
It bears repeating here that the alternative to the naked public square is not the sacred public square but the civil public square. We should not want a confessional state. The state should not confess a faith. It does that, however, when, in hostility to the faith confessed by its people, it confesses the ersatz religion of militant secularism. The great antidemocratic danger, contrary to much popular punditry, comes not from the free exercise of religion but from the secularist creeds imposed by governments that recognize no higher sovereignty. That was the reality of Nazism and communism. That danger is also present in our democracies when "the separation of church and state" is taken to mean the separation of religion from public life. The public square, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If it is not filled with the lively expression of the most deeply held convictions of the people, including their convictions grounded in religion, it will be filled by the quasi–religious beliefs of secularism.
One may well ask whether the religious situation of "Christian America" is capable of informing democratic deliberation and decision by reference to religion and religiously grounded moral discernment. My argument is that our society is aptly described as Christian—incorrigibly, confusedly, and conflictedly Christian. Christians who say that America is post–Christian are, more often than not, motivated by an understandable desire to escape the embarrassment that is this Christian society. The Christianity of Christian America is in many ways attenuated and degenerate, but it is attenuated and degenerate Christianity. Recall T. S. Eliot’s observation that a society that was Christian still is Christian until its Christianity has been replaced by a positively defined something else.
Although there are many contenders to replace Christianity in providing a comprehensive understanding of reality and a source of moral discernment, it has not been replaced. Christianity has been buffeted, battered, distorted, and exploited for innumerable purposes, but it has not been replaced. Once again, 90 percent of the American people say they are Christian. It is difficult to imagine the circumstance in which they would say they are anything else with the same implied commitment. Of course, they identify themselves as American, but that changes little since what they mean by American is inextricably entangled with being Christian. Such is the typically American "God and country" packaging of identity that always threatens to drift into a civil religion that is in tension, if not conflict, with biblical religion.
To be sure, in speaking about Christian America in this way, we are speaking more sociologically than theologically. No claim is made that the religion under discussion is "authentic," however that may be defined. Paul J. Griffiths of the University of Chicago has written interestingly about what constitutes an authentically religious account of reality. Whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, or some other religion, says Griffiths, an authentic religious account has three characteristics: it is comprehensive, unsurpassable, and central. That is to say, authentic religion provides a complete account of reality, it bespeaks an ultimate allegiance that is not in the service of any other allegiance, and it is the controlling core of one’s existence. Perhaps most Christians would like to think that that pretty much describes what they mean when they say they are Christians.
Claiming to Know Too Much
Sociologists of religion in America, however, tell us that religion for most Americans is not comprehensive, unsurpassable, and central. It is, they say, fragmented, instrumental, and marginal. By that they mean that religion typically provides an account not of everything but of the segments of reality demarcated as "religion," "spirituality," and, more ambivalently, "morality." In fact, they say, what we find in America is religion that is typically not unsurpassable but instrumental, being in the service of "meeting the needs" of the unsurpassable self. And, far from being central, it is typically marginal. The conclusion follows that the religion of "Christian America" is inauthentically religious.
Sociological data and theory are not uninteresting, but scholars who draw that conclusion are claiming to know ever so much more than they can possibly know. In theological and commonsensical fact, only God knows what all is involved in what people say and think and do religiously. Most people are religiously inarticulate, as they are inarticulate about most things that matter, with the result that their banalities may sometimes disguise a depth of meaning and experience that would greatly surprise us. We should be open to the possibility that someone employing the conventional patter about religion "meeting my needs" has a spiritual life worthy of a John of the Cross or a Teresa of Ávila. The conventional patter is simply the culturally available vocabulary. In any event, however much popular piety may be viewed condescendingly by theologians and debunked by social scientists, it is for purposes of social order the source of moral sentiment and judgment. That is the reality, admittedly a deeply confused reality, of Christian America—and it will remain that deeply confused reality until it is replaced by something that is positively something else.
To separate government from the reality of religion—from that which speaks to the deepest and highest and most commanding ways of understanding what is really real—is to separate government from the people who are the source of its legitimacy. Nonetheless, the separation of church and state, rightly understood, is good for both government and church. While we must insist that government be favorably disposed toward religion, we should not want an established religion. In the 1986 "Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation," Josef Cardinal Ratzinger declared, "God wishes to be adored by people who are free." Coerced faith is no faith, and coercion of religious belief is deeply contradictory to the spirit of the gospel, as adumbrated in Vatican II’s declaration Dignitatis Humanae. In the 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio, John Paul II wrote that "the Church addresses people with full respect for their freedom. Her mission does not restrict freedom but rather promotes it. The Church proposes; she imposes nothing." The Church’s public proposal is well served by the separation of church and state, rightly understood.
The separation of church and state, it must be emphasized, is a limit set on government, not on religion. The free exercise of religion allows a religious community to democratically agitate for its legal establishment and for a confessional state. I believe such a goal is wrongheaded, and it is clearly contrary to Catholic teaching, as the above citations illustrate. Nevertheless, the free exercise of religion means that religion is permitted to promote also dumb ideas. It is the modern state, with its insatiable ambition to power, that is limited by the separation of church and state. By that separation, the state acknowledges its incompetence in the most important areas of life, and most particularly with respect to the ultimate questions addressed by religion. The state’s systematic confession of its incompetence opens public space for the democratic politics of persuasion and consent rather than the politics of coercion.
What Is Meant by Pluralism
My ninth proposition is this: Pluralism is written into the script of history. I take that phrase from Father John Courtney Murray, who had such a significant impact upon the Council’s deliberations about religious liberty. I would take the proposition somewhat farther than Fr. Murray, however, and note that it is God who has done the writing. Pluralism—meaning that we live together with people who inhabit different worlds of meaning—would seem to be the permanent human condition. Indeed, as Samuel Huntington of Harvard has written, the "clash of civilizations" in the new millennium likely means that pluralism will be more pronounced in the future. This raises important questions about the unity of the human destiny and about the Church’s task of evangelization. I will not go into those questions here, but simply suggest that they are admirably addressed in the above–mentioned Redemptoris Missio.
Genuine pluralism is not simply the sociological fact of a plurality of worlds of meaning; it is a social and cultural achievement. Frequently people appeal to pluralism when making the argument that religion should be separated from public life. The naked public square is necessary, they say, "because we live in a pluralistic society." This is a deeply mischievous misunderstanding of pluralism. Pluralism is not pretending that our deepest differences make no difference. Pluralism, rather, is engaging those differences within the bond of civility. Pluralism requires mutual respect for persons, not indifference to truth. One can even agree with the maxim found in popular Catholic teaching of an earlier time that "error has no rights." But errors are attached to people, and people do have rights. Only through the persuasive proposal of the truth can people freely detach themselves from their errors.
Does this mean tolerance is a Christian virtue? The appeal to tolerance, many are inclined to think, is the last resort of the scoundrel. No doubt scoundrels take advantage of tolerance, and we earlier discussed devious uses of what Herbert Marcuse dubbed "repressive tolerance." Yet I would insist that tolerance is a Christian virtue. Tolerance, however, is not indifference; it is not simply "putting up with" those with whom we disagree. It is genuine respect for the other, even when we cannot respect what they do or say. Secularists routinely claim that religion is a threat to tolerance, and there is no lack of historical evidence for that claim. But we now must more vigorously make the case that religion is the most solid foundation for tolerance. Recall the observation that we do not kill one another over our disagreements about the will of God because we agree that it is the will of God that we not kill one another over our disagreements about the will of God. This is agreement in the truth that this is the will of God. Social and historical circumstances have led us to recognize that truth, but we recognize it because it is the truth. Again, it is John Paul II who so powerfully argued, especially in Centesimus Annus, that it is not agnosticism that secures a free and just society but a religiously informed respect for the person and the person in community.
The Normality of Conflict
Then to my tenth and final proposition: Democratic deliberation and decision–making is necessarily conflictual. In thinking about the century and centuries ahead, we may and should hope for what Pope Paul VI called "the civilization of love," but the civilization of love is not the civilization of unanimity. Short of the End Time, even among people of the best will (and it will never be that everybody will be of the best will), there will be different and frequently conflicting understandings of moral truth and the common good—and, increasingly, there is disagreement over what might be meant by words such as "truth" and "good." Such conflict need not be lethal or self–destructive if several conditions are maintained.
First, the sovereignty of the state and the sphere of politics must be carefully circumscribed. Samuel Johnson wisely observed, "How small the part of all that human hearts endure can laws or kings either cause or cure." In fact, laws and kings—and democratic governments as well!—can cause a great deal of human unhappiness, typically by overestimating the measure of human unhappiness that they can cure. The deepest and most important things over which people find themselves in conflict should, as much as possible, be beyond the scope of the state. This truth is closely tied, of course, to the doctrine of subsidiarity and the revitalization of "mediating institutions," as discussed above.
Second, conflict is not destructive if the political process is open to citizens of all convictions, and there are neither penalties nor rewards based on religious conviction or the lack thereof. The public square must always be open to all—at least in theory that is supported by determined effort. Despite the argument of some theorists, total openness and unimpeded communication are not possible. Some will be excluded by mental disability, others will exclude themselves by, for example, criminal actions. Even when assailed by violence and corrupted by bad faith—in fact, especially then—the commitment to the civil public square is to be sustained. It can be sustained by an awareness that God calls us to care for the earthly polis, and by the knowledge that opponents have access to truth and a capacity for reason even when they seem determined to prove that they don’t. And again, it helps to know that the most important things to be communicated and agreed upon are not in the realm of politics.
Third, the Church must acknowledge the limits of its competence in political and economic life. In relation to politics it strives to maintain a principled, firm, and nonpartisan stance. Admittedly, that is not easy. In specific circumstances of partisan conflict, even the most carefully crafted statement of principle will be viewed by some as partisan. Therefore, a good rule of thumb when it comes to statements that intend to invoke the Church’s moral authority is this: When it is not necessary to speak, it is necessary not to speak. At stake is the danger of turning the gospel into an ideology or party platform. Politics is not the vocation of the Church. The Church is to help equip the faithful for the exercise of their vocations in the public square. The vocation of the Church is to help sustain many different vocations.
Arguments that Are Public
Fourth, religious people, and religious leaders in particular, must, when they enter the public square, make genuinely public moral arguments. That is to say, they must, as much as possible, frame their arguments in a public vocabulary that is as accessible to as many people as possible, and must exercise a disciplined restraint in appealing explicitly to religious authority. What the Bible says or what the Church’s Magisterium says should inspire and inform our public argument, but it is not a genuinely public argument to tell others that we should do something because it is the teaching of the Bible or the Magisterium. In framing arguments that are truly public and not limited to Christians, we have, of course, a powerful resource in varieties of natural law traditions.
That fourth condition requires two caveats. We might ask: In a society where everybody, or at least a politically effective majority, accepts the authority of the Bible, why shouldn’t we be able to appeal explicitly to biblical teaching in political disputes? The answer is that we are free to do so, of course, but it would make the public square captive to the endless disagreements over interpreting the Bible that have already so sadly divided the churches. The wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries devastated the social and political fabric of Europe, and nobody should want to flirt with a repeat of that tragic experience. The situation might be very different if or when the wounds of a divided Christianity are healed. That happy prospect, however, appears to be a long way off.
The question of divided Christianity touches on our understanding of the Church, or ecclesiology, as it is called. Here enters the second caveat about the rule that public arguments be made in a way that is publicly accessible. Stanley Hauerwas, a Methodist theologian at Duke University, is often quoted: "The Church does not have a social ethic. The Church is a social ethic." I entirely agree with what I take to be intended by that formula. The greatest public contribution of the Church is for the Church to be the Church—fully and unapologetically. If the Christian people were more fully living together the faith that they profess, they would also, individually and corporately, be more effective in the public square.
A difficulty with the Hauerwasian position, however, is in locating this church that is to stand in countercultural challenge to the surrounding society when the great majority of people in the surrounding society think they belong to the church. Perhaps they are simply to be told that they are wrong about that. But the prospect of mass excommunication would seem to require some careful theological reflection. A good many Christians—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, liberal and conservative—appear to have few theological inhibitions about assuming that most other Christians are not really Christian. Whether by criteria of political correctness, doctrinal orthodoxy, ecclesial connection, or moral rectitude, most Christians are assumed to be excommunicate. Thinking that way makes it much easier to believe that America is a post–Christian society, which relieves us of the burden and embarrassment of a society that is—incorrigibly, confusedly, and conflictedly—Christian America. Thinking that way is, I believe, theologically untenable, sociologically contrary to fact, and morally unseemly.
I have offered, then, ten propositions regarding church, state, and democracy in the twenty–first century. We should be able to understand why many Christians are suspicious of the liberal democratic idea. They associate it with a liberalism that is purely "procedural," that prescinds from moral tradition or judgment. Or they associate liberalism with the doctrine of the Imperial Self, in which there is only government on the one hand and, on the other, the autonomous, atomistic individual. Or they associate liberalism with a brand of libertarianism premised upon a laissez–faire doctrine of the survival of the fittest. These versions of liberalism were rightly condemned by the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century.
Throughout the course of modernity, the vocabulary of liberalism has been promiscuous in its couplings with strange doctrines. But liberal democracy would seem to be the likely future. If it is liberal democracy along the lines proposed here, it is worthy of support. It is not the last word; it is not Fukuyama’s "end of history"; I’m not sure it’s even, in Churchill’s phrase, the least bad of all the systems of government that have been tried. But at the beginning of the twenty–first century, it’s better than anything else on offer. That may not seem like much, but, as at the beginning of the first millennium so also at the beginning of the third, alien citizens know not to expect too much from the earthly city.
It has only to be added that no existing government, including the American experiment in democratic government by republican means, adequately exemplifies the government described in these three essays. Probably none ever will. That does not mean we have been describing an impossible, and therefore irrelevant, ideal. Rather, this is proposed as a model, firmly grounded in a Christian understanding of anthropology, ethics, and historical possibility. Some political experiments will approximate it more adequately than others. Approximation is the continuing task, and when we grow weary and are tempted to despair, recall the fellow in the Eastern European shtetl whose job was to look out for the coming of the Messiah. With his family and other responsibilities, he told the elders, he needed a raise. "The shtetl can’t afford a raise," they replied, "but look at it this way: It’s steady work."
Erik von Kuehnelt–Leddihn, 1909–1999
I was going to write something about Erik von Kuehnelt–Leddihn, but then Michael Aeschliman of Boston University submitted the following about our friend, which says what needs to be said better than I could.
It was a great privilege to have known the Austrian historian Erik von Kuehnelt–Leddihn, who died peacefully last spring at his home in the Austrian Tyrol at the age of ninety. Erik and his wife, longtime anti–Communists and anti–Nazis, were in exile in the United States from 1938 (the year of the Nazi annexation of Austria) until 1946, when they returned to their native country. Nearly every year afterward, Erik lectured in America. He also traveled widely throughout the rest of the world. (Fluent in eight languages, with a reading knowledge of another ten, he was the most astonishingly gifted linguist I have ever known.) At the age of twenty Erik served as a special correspondent in Russia for a Hungarian daily paper; from that time forward he pursued a unique career as a journalist, historian, lecturer, traveler, novelist, and painter. It is to the great credit of William F. Buckley, Jr. that he had the insight to appoint Erik as a regular writer for National Review. His "From the Continent" column was both learned and topical, and attracted the attention of such luminaries as Jacques Barzun. In addition to many books in German (with translations into several other languages), Erik wrote two volumes in English that are a great help in understanding the history of the last two centuries: Liberty or Equality (1952; revised edition 1993) and Leftism Revisited (1953; revised edition 1990). These works combine detailed political and intellectual history with sociology, philosophy, and theology in a way that is a standing reproach to the esotericism and neophilia of American academic publishing.
Erik disliked specialization; throughout his long life he worked against it by assembling and deploying vast, coordinated learning. He tried to see life steadily and see it whole. Witness to the collapse of an empire and the rise and fall of two brutal totalitarianisms, he was at the vortex of world–historical events; in part because of what he had observed, he could never credit the nostrums by which so much of modern opinion is sustained. As a consequence, he was often a lonely witness against the "treason of the intellectuals."
Politically and religiously Erik was just as comprehensive, and just as rigorous. He was a Catholic aristocrat who never lost his loyalty to the Hapsburg family and the empire it ruled for so long, an empire whose destruction in 1919 unleashed a nightmare in Central Europe. He defended the conservative liberalism of Burke, Tocqueville, Montalembert, Burckhardt, Acton, and the American Founders (whom he helped introduce to the German–speaking world). He argued doggedly against "democratism," the idea that majorities are always right, because he believed that democracy was the characteristically modern form of political idolatry, based on a flattery of fallen human nature. In addition, although he was a fervently orthodox Catholic, Erik had great respect for Martin Luther, whom he considered a religious genius. And he was always proud of the Hapsburg opposition to anti–Semitism. One wonders whether, had there been more European Catholic aristocrats with his real nobility, the old order might have survived.
Yet I think that Erik, standing now beyond such narrow social considerations, would tell us what we ought to know already: history is not the ultimate theater of justice or salvation. There is a world elsewhere. It is that world to which Erik von Kuehnelt–Leddihn bore eloquent and faithful witness, especially as he helped us understand what happens when, in this world, it is forgotten.
While We’re At It
- There are deeper things at work in the dispute over Edmund Morris’ "biography" of Ronald Reagan, Dutch (Random House). Those who despise Reagan and think he is not deserving of a real biography, or fear that an honest biography might expose their cherished prejudices, are undisturbed by the way Morris inserts his fictionalized self and other inventions into the story. For instance, Christopher Lehmann–Haupt, a daily reviewer for the New York Times, writes: "One might of course dismiss Mr. Morris’ technique as committing the fallacy of imitative form, matching an artificial narrative with an inauthentic subject. But some would argue that Mr. Reagan’s rise to fame was the contradiction of that fallacy." One might parse that tangled language in several ways, but I take it Mr. Lehmann–Haupt is saying that an inauthentic life deserves a dishonest narrative. But he has a more comprehensive point: "So call Dutch a literary work instead of a biography. Besides, all biographies invent their stories, as Jay Parini pointed out recently in his Robert Frost: A Life. Why not invent the inventor?" Why not indeed?— there is no truth and the effort to ascertain it is therefore a delusion. Thus are the postmodernist vapors from the fever swamps of the academy conveyed by pop–intellects into the general culture.
- Come again? The Park Ridge Center in Chicago is affiliated with the Advocate Health Care System which is, in turn, affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This from the Center’s Bulletin: "With a grant from A Better World Foundation, the Park Ridge Center will cooperate with a group of internationally recognized scholars in a project called Religion Counts, an independent initiative jointly managed by the Park Ridge Center and Catholics for a Free Choice." The article goes on to say that, since the Center does not engage in advocacy, its role will be limited to the research component of the project. The research is to show how religion "can contribute to public policy on population, development, and reproductive health." For the record, A Better World Foundation is a big time funder of pro–abortion advocacy and population control. Catholics for a Free Choice is an institutionalized lie, beginning with its name. Its sole purpose, funded by major anti–Catholic foundations, is to traduce and counter the contribution of the Catholic Church "to public policy on population, development, and reproductive health." The fact is that the Park Ridge Center is engaged in the advocacy of radical pro–abortion and anti–Catholic politics, and its disingenuous effort to deny that fact is pitiable.
- Whatever happened to the underclass? It is no longer a hot subject in public discussions. More than ten years ago, Charles Murray wrote about "The Coming of Custodial Democracy." In a new study, The Underclass Revisited, he suggests that what has happened to the underclass is that custodial democracy has been further entrenched. The poor and their problems are still there, but they are more or less successfully contained by policies that prevent their intruding upon the lives of the rest of us. The same policies, Murray contends, exacerbate the problems that isolate the poor. His conclusion: "Though we will continue to live in the geographic location that became America, at some point we must accept that we are no longer living the idea that became America." Readers who resist accepting that can obtain a copy of The Underclass Revisited for $9.95 from the American Enterprise Institute, 1150 17th Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20036.
- We are polluted in our determination to resist pollution, and I don’t know the way out of this dilemma. The thought came to mind in going through the catalogues of university presses and noting the increase in the number of books on the Marquis de Sade. The thought also came frequently to mind this past year and a half in thinking about the sordid soap opera that is the Clinton presidency. Who would have thought that our public discourse, such as it is, would include semen–stained dresses, the fine points of fellatio, and pornographer Larry Flynt holding forth on talk shows about the state of the American soul? By merely mentioning the degradation, everything is degraded. A couple of years ago Roger Shattuck of Boston University published Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, in which he exposed and condemned what can only be described as the evil of the Marquis de Sade. He noted that Michel Foucault at the height of his influence celebrated Sade and sadism as the reconversion of the West to "the limitless presumption of appetite," pointing the way toward "surpassing reason through violence." Acclaimed critic Roland Barthes, taking a different tack, treated Sade’s writings as mere "texts"—word games and semiotic play. Shattuck writes, "Amid the shrieks and flowing blood of the most horrible scenes, we might just be playing Scrabble." Commenting on these developments, Shattuck says, "Simone de Beauvoir asked, ‘Must we burn Sade?’ The answer is no. He deserves his corner, like the teratology collection in a medical school. But let us not glorify and celebrate his advocacy of a debauched aristocracy exploiting and torturing the rest of us with impunity. We have enough commercialized sexual violence without this vicious evangelist. I don’t believe we want our grandchildren to be reading Sade along with Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, and Willa Cather—and perhaps instead of them. Some literary revivals defile us more than they enlighten us." One agrees with that conclusion while wondering whether Shattuck too wonders whether he has not, however inadvertently, contributed to the defilement. Forbidden Knowledge has made it more academically respectable to read and discuss Sade, even as those who write the books and teach the courses may agree that Sade’s writings are comparable to the monstrosity collection in a medical school. Who are the elite who can safely be given a key to the teratology room? Not so long ago, libraries kept some books in a locked cage. One might even entertain the suspicion that the answer to Simone de Beauvoir’s question is not quite so self–evident as Roger Shattuck suggests.
- Sometimes it seems that Americans are pretty traditional after all. The Public Perspective, a review of public opinions and polling released by the Roper Center, recently surveyed Americans on their habits and opinions on a whole host of things, from beachwear to the new currency. The results are not what you might expect. The report found that in 1998 a full 39 percent of Americans lived in the same city in which they were raised. Forty–two percent follow major league baseball with over sixty–one million Americans attending major league baseball games in 1996. A strong majority favor dress codes (59 percent) and uniforms (64 percent) in schools, well over half have pets, 94 percent think people should stand during the singing of the national anthem and 93 percent report feeling "emotional" when they hear it. Of course, not all the news is good news. Half of Americans admit to watching up to two hours of TV a day, and as many as 16 percent watch five or more hours a day, all the while admitting that it’s a bad influence on kids (53 percent). Astonishingly, a full 60 percent of Americans expect the end of the world within the next century, either by the final Day of Judgment or by other means. Perhaps that’s what comes of watching so much TV.
- President Clinton rightly observed that "the First Amendment does not convert our schools into religion–free zones." That was in reference to the Department of Education’s 1995 Guidelines on Religion in the Public Schools, a handbook to be distributed to every school board in the nation concerning religious freedom and student rights. Robert P. George, Princeton professor and former member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, is not terribly impressed with the DOEd’s efforts, or, more accurately, lack thereof. In his statement on several hearings held by the Commission over several months in 1998, Prof. George reports that, while the Guidelines have been dutifully distributed, their impact has been almost nil. The Department of Education has made no effort to discover whether the Guidelines are being read or implemented in local public schools. And, while the Guidelines do inform of the Equal Access Act, which guarantees "Bible clubs" and such the same access to public facilities as other groups, they do not make any substantial contribution or correction to the content of the curriculum, where religion is restricted to the field of history. This seems not to be a case of mere laziness or bureaucratic overload on the part of the Department of Education, Prof. George notes. Rather, it appears to be a lack of commitment or interest in safeguarding the religious rights of students and teachers. In the years since the Guidelines were first released, there have been three "summits" held by Secretary of Education Richard Riley, but no attempt to get the Guidelines to students or parents and no special training for teachers. In the few places where the Guidelines have, in fact, initiated a local discussion of the role of religion in society, dialogue about First Amendment rights has increased mutual respect and understanding within the community—and litigation on religion in the schools has decreased. Otherwise, outright hostility towards religion holds the day, and, in an almost clichéd fashion, a materialist worldview masquerades as "neutrality." The Justice Department, says Prof. George, has taken very little interest in the matter of religious rights in the public schools: no one at the DOJ is in charge of endorsing the Equal Access Act, nor has even a single case been instituted against a school in violation of the Act. He suggests that the DOJ take a look at the state of New York, where complaints of violations of religious civil rights exceed the rest of the nation. He expresses the hope that the Guidelines "will go beyond a mere recitation of current law to the presentation of a positive vision of the role of religion and religious views in the curriculum and in the school, a vision that is fully consistent with the First Amendment and recognizes the value and role of religion in our nation." The Guidelines are available at www.ed.gov/speeches/08–1995/religion.html.
- I don’t want to get into trouble again with readers who, while making it clear that they are not socialists, want it known that they despise capitalism and scold me for what they claim (wrongly) is my unqualified enthusiasm for the market economy. At the risk of rousing their ire once again, I note that eighty–eight countries are rated "Free" by the Freedom House survey on political freedom and civil liberties, and fifty–three countries are "Partly Free." There are 117 electoral democracies round the world, and countries that aren’t are moving in that direction, notably Nigeria and Indonesia. The Wall Street Journal, which issues its own "Index of Economic Freedom" together with the Heritage Foundation, observes: "While the Freedom House findings don’t jibe perfectly with ours on economic freedom, there’s nevertheless a close correlation. Scholars may differ on which comes first, but the two almost invariably go hand in hand. There’s a good reason Cuba and North Korea are at the bottom of both lists." Of course, logically speaking, correlation is not the same thing as cause. But when the correlation is so persistent, people may be forgiven for thinking the connection between political and economic freedom is something more than coincidental.
- Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship approves of John Paul II’s appeal that all the world’s bishops should visit a prison during the Jubilee Year. But then, so many evangelical Protestants respond favorably to this Pope. As a Southern Baptist official remarked fifteen years ago at the beginning of the pontificate, "You guys sure got a Pope who knows how to pope." In this instance, however, even the National Catholic Reporter approves of the Pope’s suggestion: "This is the kind of imaginative gesture John Paul has made all too seldom. Too preoccupied with keeping the lid on doctrine and discipline, he failed to use his vast popularity to act rather than react, to enable rather than control. Yet it’s never too late." So apparently there is still time for him to learn how to pope. On the other hand, who would have predicted that twenty years of unimaginative repression and reaction would have produced such "vast popularity"?
- Clarke D. Forsythe, writing in Christianity Today, makes note of the seemingly bizarre "disconnect" at work in the mind of Middle America today: abortion is evil, but it is necessary. That most Americans consider abortion to be evil is amply supported by the evidence: the 1991 Gallup poll, which is the most complete poll on attitudes toward abortion to date, found that 77 percent of the people believe that abortion is the taking of human life (28 percent) or outright murder (49 percent), and if anything those numbers have increased in the intervening years. At the same time, these Americans, who will favor virtually any policy to dissuade women from abortions, say it is necessary for abortion, at least in some circumstances, to remain legal (60 percent). Forsythe contends that the "necessary" part is based on four myths that have had great public currency since the 1960s. The first myth is that between one and two million abortions occurred annually before abortion was legalized. In fact, the number was in the tens of thousands at most; in 1968, the first year of legalization in California, only five thousand abortions were performed in that state. The second myth is that thousands of women died every year from botched abortions before legalization. According to the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, in 1972 thirty–nine women died from illegal abortions, only twelve more than the twenty–seven who died from legal abortions. The third myth is that pre–Roe laws penalized women, when in fact they punished the doctors and considered women the second victims of the abortions. The fourth myth is that abortion has been good for women, but, in Forsythe’s summation, "the general impact on health has had many negative consequences, including the physical and psychological toll that many women bear, the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, the general coarsening of male–female relationships over the past thirty years, the threefold increase in the repeat–abortion rate, and the increase in hospitalizations from ectopic pregnancies." In addition to the perdurance of these myths, Forsythe observes that the "choice" rhetoric subtly skews the argument in the minds of many Americans. They have been taught to think of abortion policy only in legal, not moral, terms. In this view, what is legal is moral, even if one deems it immoral. Disconnect is one word for it; incoherence is another. But the great task now is to overcome the myths behind abortion as a "necessary evil." Given sinful human nature, it is inevitable that there will be some abortions, no matter how great the change in law and culture. But inevitability is not necessity. It is never necessary to do evil.
- I have over the years been viewed as a man of the left and a man of the right, and the truth is that I’ve never put much stake in such labels. But this I have learned: the left patrols its borders and checks membership credentials ever so much more scrupulously, even ruthlessly, than does the right. There is on the right, at least as I have experienced it, nothing like the rigorous rules of political correctness. A conservative who dissents from majority conservative opinion on, say, capital punishment, school vouchers, or sanctions against Cuba is said to be "unsound" on those particular issues but is not drummed out of polite conservative company. Not so on the left. In the late sixties and seventies I dissented on a number of questions, notably on the "anti–Amerika" turn of the movement against the war in Vietnam and, most decisively, on abortion. The rituals of excommunication are immediate and relentless, as brilliantly described in, for instance, Norman Podhoretz’s Breaking Ranks. All this is brought to mind by Alan Wolfe’s review in the New Republic of Katherine S. Newman’s No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City (Knopf). Wolfe scathingly dissects the ways in which Newman blinds herself with a leftist ideology that prevents her from seeing that the stories she tells about the working poor in Harlem in fact vindicate the 1996 welfare reform that moves people from dependency on the dole to productive employment. Wolfe writes: "Work, in short, acts as something of a wonder drug for which dependency on the state was the disease. This, at least, is one way to read what Newman’s actual research demonstrates. For all its leftist asides, No Shame in My Game is in some ways a thoroughly conservative book. When a book written from the left praises employers for expanding opportunities and laments military cutbacks for constricting them, it is clear how far from the 1960s we have traveled. And from the 1980s, too. The world described by Newman is one in which black Burger Barn managers will not hire unkempt black teenagers, and Spanish–speaking immigrants, to the resentment of many blacks, grab up as many of the available jobs in Harlem as they can get their hands on. This is not the stuff of the Rainbow Coalition." But now Wolfe senses that he is on dangerous ground. The suspicion is raised, Is Alan Wolfe moving to the right? To ward off that dangerous suspicion, Wolfe ends his long essay by excoriating conservatives who refuse to recognize that there are some good people in real need of public assistance. If welfare reform turns out badly some years from now, we can blame "conservative hostility to the poor. Conservatives treat the poor as Marx once described the lumpenproletariat, as a sack of potatoes in which one is indistinguishable from another." And so forth. As it happens, it was conservatives who pressed, precisely for the sake of the poor, the importance of work over what Wolfe acknowledges as "the disease" of welfare dependency. In the inner cities across our country, it is generally conservatives, acting through religiously based programs, that are reaching out to help those who fall through the cracks of welfare reform. Never mind, Alan Wolfe has assured the readers of TNR that he is not breaking ranks. He still despises conservatives. Call off the political correctness patrol.
- The Library of Conservative Thought is edited by Professor Michael Henry of St. John’s University, and published by Transaction. If there are worthy books that are now out of print—in political philosophy, politics, culture, religion, etc.—and that you think should be included in the series, Prof. Henry is eager for suggestions and can be reached at St. John’s University, Humanities, 8000 Utopia Parkway, Jamaica, New York 11439.
- Snippets of it appeared in reports here and there, but I had not seen the full statement of Judge Jessica Cooper of Oakland County Circuit Court when she sentenced Jack Kevorkian to a term of ten to twenty years and denied him bail while he appeals his conviction. Her statement may be read as a footnote to Robert H. Bork’s article "Thomas More for Our Season," in the June/July issue.
This is a court of law and you said you invited yourself here to take a final stand. But this trial was not an opportunity for a referendum. The law prohibiting euthanasia was specifically reviewed and clarified by the Michigan Supreme Court several years ago in a decision involving your very own cases, sir. So the charge here should come as no surprise to you. You invited yourself to the wrong forum. Well, we are a nation of laws, and we are a nation that tolerates differences of opinion because we have a civilized and a nonviolent way of resolving our conflicts that weighs the law and adheres to the law. We have the means and the methods to protest the laws with which we disagree. You can criticize the law, you can write or lecture about the law, you can speak to the media or petition the voters. But you must always stay within the limits provided by the law. You may not break the law. You may not take the law into your own hands. In point of fact, the issue of assisted suicide was addressed in this state by referendum just last November. And while the proponents of that were out campaigning, you were with Thomas Youk. And the voters of the state of Michigan said "no." And they said no two–and–a–half to one. But we are not talking about assisted suicide here. When you purposely inject another human being with what you know to be a lethal dosage of poison, that, sir, is murder. And the jury so found. Now, you’ve vilified the jury and the justice system in this case. But every member of that jury had compassion and empathy for Thomas Youk. They had a higher duty that went beyond personal sympathy and emotion. They took an oath to follow the law, not to nullify it. And I am bound by a very similar oath, sir. No one is unmindful of the controversy and emotion that exists over end–of–life issues and pain control. And I assume that the debate will continue in a calm and reasoned forum long after this trial and your activities have faded from public memory. But this trial is not about that controversy. The trial was about you, sir. It was about you and the legal system. And you have ignored and challenged the Legislature and the Supreme Court. And moreover, you’ve defied your own profession, the medical profession. You stood before this jury and you spoke of your duty as a physician. You repeatedly speak of treating patients to relieve their pain and suffering. You don’t have a license to practice medicine. . . . This trial was not about the political or moral correctness of euthanasia. It was all about you, sir. It was about lawlessness. It was about disrespect for a society that exists and flourishes because of the strength of the legal system. . . . So let’s talk just a little bit more about you specifically. You were on bond to another judge when you committed this offense, you were not licensed to practice medicine when you committed this offense and you hadn’t been licensed for eight years. And you had the audacity to go on national television, show the world what you did, and dare the legal system to stop you. Well, sir, consider yourself stopped.
- "Chutzpah" is sometimes defined as offensive self–confidence, shamelessness, effrontery, or gall. It can be all those things, of course, but such definitions fail to catch the charming ingenuousness of the thing. Here, for instance, is a story in the Times under the heading, "Princeton Puzzle: Where Have Jewish Students Gone?" Twenty years ago, 18 percent of Princeton students were Jewish, and that is now down to 10 percent. The question is, according to Karen W. Arenson of the Times, "Why do other Ivy League campuses—Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Penn—manage to keep Jewish populations of at least a quarter and in some cases more than a third?" Why indeed is Princeton not maintaining its Jewish quota? The president of Princeton, Harold Shapiro, is Jewish, as are presidents of other Ivy League schools. He says, "If there’s something we’re doing that consciously or unconsciously discriminates against any religion, then we should stop it, but no one has presented me with any evidence." Ms. Arenson’s point, however, is that, whether or not discrimination is involved, Princeton is failing to meet what is presumed to be the norm. Two percent of the American population is Jewish, and Princeton has only five times that ratio among its students, while comparable schools manage to overrepresent Jews by as much as fifteen times. The article says, "Minority enrollment—black, Hispanic, and Asian–American students—is now 27 percent, not markedly different from the general population." So it appears that it is Jews who are being singled out, almost as though they were a minority. Ms. Arenson notes, "Nobody is advocating affirmative action for Jews." Most Jews, being liberal, are supportive of affirmative action for other minorities, which means that they should be represented at least in proportion to their numbers in the general population. Affirmative action for Jews, one gathers from the Times, would mean that their proportional representation should be multiplied by fifteen. Explicitly advocating that, however, would be a bit much. Anyway, unlike other minorities, Jews will rely on merit, confident that the result will be their dramatic overrepresentation among the elite. When that result is not dramatic enough, as in the case of Princeton, something is clearly wrong. Ms. Arenson writes, "One answer to those concerned about the number of Jewish students may be an expansion of the student body." Princeton currently takes in about 1,150 freshmen and it is proposed that that be increased by 125 or 150. The implication is that, if such a change is to be responsive to "those concerned about the number of Jewish students," most of these additional students would be Jewish. In the Times and elsewhere, the discussion of Princeton’s presumed "Jewish problem" pays insufficient attention to the declining number of college–age Jews. Twenty years ago, Jews were nearly 5 percent of all college freshmen in the country, and now they are about 2 percent. That the brightest congregate in a few elite universities may say something positive about the desire of Jewish students to date and marry other Jews. The suggestion that the elite status of an institution such as Princeton is thrown into question because it does not maintain the Jewish quota established by Harvard and others is quite wrongheaded. It is also, as aforesaid, an instance of chutzpah that is not without its charm. Or maybe Ms. Arenson’s point—recalling Groucho Marx’s mot about rejecting any club that would admit him to membership—is that Princeton is too elite. In any event, we have as a country come a long way when the suspicion of anti–Semitism is raised because an institution has only five times more Jews than their presence in the general population.
- Scholars should welcome the appearance of Review of Theological Literature, a new quarterly that excerpts and translates European, mainly German–language, publications appearing in Theologische Literaturzeitung, which was established by Adolf von Harnack in 1876. The coverage is broad, including biblical studies, church history, ethics, and world religions. For subscription information write T&T Clark, 59 George Street, Edinburgh EH2 2LQ, Scotland (fax 0131 220 4260).
- Alan Wolfe has been hired away from Boston University (very nominally Methodist) by Boston College (nominally Catholic) to start an institute on religion and public life. As Chairman Mao said before he chopped them down, let a hundred flowers bloom. Mr. Wolfe has in his long career made no known contribution to the understanding of religion—and, as Gertrude Himmelfarb notes in her new book, One Nation, Two Cultures, he has frequently declared his hostility to religion in public—but he writes prolifically on public life as viewed through the prism of liberal politics. His general argument is that Americans are all good liberals, and not too much attention should be paid a few alien ideologues who call themselves conservatives. Recently in the New Republic he castigated conservatives for having not "written a serious, original, philosophically fundamental book that would do for conservatism what John Rawls had done for liberalism." This assumes that Rawls’ convoluted "justice as fairness" contrived by egoists behind a "veil of ignorance" has been a great boon for liberalism. John Miller and Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review ask, "Have conservatives been too busy defending the Great Books from Wolfe’s professorial colleagues to write any of their own?" In fact, they note, Wolfe ignores NR’s recent list of the hundred best nonfiction books of the twentieth century, many of them written by self–confessed conservatives. They continue: "How could conservatives possibly disprove Wolfe’s thesis that modern conservatism is impossible? It isn’t enough to write ‘thoughtful and persuasive books,’ as he concedes James Q. Wilson and Mary Ann Glendon have done, since they aren’t architectonic. It isn’t enough to win the Cold War. (Conservatives have never ‘introduced programs that . . . demonstrate that conservative policies could work on their own terms.’) . . . We could privatize the currency, abolish public education and child–labor laws, outlaw abortion, and restore the Tenth Amendment and the gold standard tomorrow, and Wolfe would still say that ‘conservatism never emerged as a true governing philosophy in the late twentieth century’ and that we’re all liberals. Fine. We’ll take that deal."
- For years Northern High School in Calvert County, Maryland, had student–led prayer at commencement. Earlier this year the ACLU protested, and the school ruled that the student who wished to pray could call for a silent "time for reflection," but without mentioning God. Come the commencement and the time for reflection, a voice in the crowd intoned "Our Father who art in heaven" and soon at least half the crowd of four thousand was joining in the Lord’s Prayer. The ACLU stated, "The real loser here is the Constitution and the right of people to express dissent." I expect that some of the people thought that is exactly what they were doing.
- "If a moral argument is associated with religion, it need not be taken seriously because we know that religion is evil." Most major newspapers would hesitate to publish an opinion piece making that assertion so bluntly. Ben Bova, author of Immortality and member of USA Today’s board of contributors, advocates in that paper unfettered scientific research to expand the human life span to age two hundred and beyond. "Most of the objections voiced today to research involving human embryos," writes Bova, "appear to be based on religious beliefs, not on socioeconomic considerations. They are the continuation of a struggle that once saw thinkers such as Galileo muzzled and Giordano Bruno burned at the stake because they expressed opinions contrary to the teachings of the Church." Which, being translated, is pretty much the opening statement above, with perhaps the coda that the Catholic religion is most particularly evil. Bova concludes by noting that Hitler and Stalin also wanted to control scientific research. And we know what religious fanatics they were.
- When the Lambeth Conference, the decennial gathering of the Anglican communion, last year overwhelmingly rejected homosexual relations as being incompatible with the historic Christian faith, many Episcopalian bishops in this country made it clear that they would ignore the decision, and that certainly seems to be the case here in New York. In the days prior to the Gay Pride Parade, a homosexual newspaper, New York Blade, was distributed door to door in our neighborhood. In addition to glowing stories on male prostitutes and porno stars, along with innumerable classifieds offering or soliciting sundry sexual services, there are advertisements by Episcopal churches, including a large ad by the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine for "A Sacred Celebration" of the thirtieth anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, featuring "The Honorable Barney Frank, the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, Lavender Light Gospel Choir, the Lesbian and Gay Big Apple Corps Band, and other very special guests." My mentioning this will likely elicit from Episcopalian readers more complaints that I am too critical of their communion. I sincerely do not wish to be, but surely we have not reached the point where ecumenical respect is defined by pretending not to notice.
- It is true, as an alert reader notes, that the catastrophe in Kosovo has muddled some conventional distinctions between left and right. She sends along an editorial in the Nation that asserts "most thoughtful leftists have long known that when it comes to a serious critique of U.S. foreign policy, they have far more in common with elements of the right than they do with the Cold War liberals and their globalist progeny currently running U.S. diplomacy." The editorial quotes Thomas Fleming, paleoconservative editor of Chronicles: "We are the evil empire. Our war in Kosovo is the latest chapter in a century of American imperialism that includes Vietnam, the Gulf War, and our shameful, secret wars in Central America." It is not always unambiguously clear that America is, in the words of Lincoln, "the last, best hope of earth," but to claim that it is the evil empire is both repugnant and ridiculous. That is the kind of intemperate wrongheadedness that prompted us to break with the Rockford Institute, the publisher of Chronicles, ten years ago. Suffice it to say that Kosovo is part of a new and deeply troubling chapter in which a post–Cold War America, under the most feckless leadership, resorts to bullying and violence in the absence of a clearly articulated policy, never mind an overarching doctrine for the exercise of its power in the world. This, we must hope and resolve, is not a permanent circumstance.
- Some Christians, let it be admitted, are so insecure about their place in the world that they are pitiably grateful when Christianity, or even religion–in–general, gets public notice, even if the notice is trivializing or downright hostile. Thus an evangelical friend thinks James Twitchell’s Lead Us Into Temptation (Columbia University Press) is important because it "lifts up the religious dimension." So Christians are in the business of marketing "the religious dimension"? A wiser evaluation of Twitchell is offered by Laura Landro, writing in the Wall Street Journal: "Throughout, Mr. Twitchell draws parallels between consumerism and religion. Clergymen will no doubt be dismayed—understandably—at such assertions as: ‘Whereas the Heavenly Host organized the world of our ancestors, the Marketplace of Objects does it for us; they both promise redemption: one through faith, the other through purchase.’ To Mr. Twitchell, ‘modern consumerism is not a replacement of religion but a continuation, a secularizing, of a struggle for order. Salvation through consumption is not a contradiction, but a necessity.’ It takes a pretty shallow idea of religious belief, and of human spiritual yearning, to write such cant. To put it diplomatically, Mr. Twitchell has seized on a few basic truths about consumerism and gotten completely carried away. But this much may be true: Going out shopping might be more rewarding and fulfilling than reading a book about it."
- I’m not sure what to make of it, but I suspect that there is more than a little merit to Dennis Prager’s argument. He is greatly exercised that the dean of Harvard Divinity School, Ronald Thiemann, was asked to resign after it was discovered that he had pornography on his university computer. The Divinity School is not a seminary, notes Prager, and therefore the argument does not wash that more is expected of someone who is in a position of "religious leadership." The feminists who believe pornography is antiwoman, says Prager, would have protested just as strongly against the dean of any other school. He imagines them saying, "How can Harvard allow a man who views women as sexual objects to teach law to our young men and women?" Prager makes this telling point: "If the dean were a homosexual man who had pictures of naked men on his computer, the chances that Harvard would have asked him to resign his position are next to nothing. And if Harvard had asked a gay dean to resign for having private pictures of naked men, charges of homophobia would have engulfed the university." Those demanding Thiemann’s resignation, Prager observes, included some who were vocal defenders of President Clinton during the Monica sleaze. "They had argued that society should allow the President of the United States to do whatever he wants sexually so long as it does not adversely affect his work—an argument that is worthy of respect. But how then can they criticize a college dean for his fantasy life? If looking at pictures of naked females alone in one’s office fatally compromises a man’s ability to be a university dean, why doesn’t acting out sexual fantasies in the Oval Office with a real female compromise a man’s ability to be President of the United States?" In Prager’s view, the moral contradictions and invasion of Thiemann’s privacy have only one explanation—"heterophobia—a hostility to heterosexual male sexuality." I do not take as benign a view of pornography as does Mr. Prager, and friends at Harvard say that they suspect that something more than pornography was involved in Thiemann’s leaving (although they also say they don’t know what that might be), but Dennis Prager has given us something worth thinking about.
- I see from their newsletter that the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health, and Ethics is sponsoring in Philadelphia a conference of "distinguished international scholars" to promote "The Right to Family Planning, Contraception, and Abortion in Ten World Religions." It sounds impressive, but in the long list of participants there is not a name that would be recognized outside the person’s immediate family or academic department. Except for Daniel C. Maguire, the former priest and pop–dissident at Marquette University. The bad news is that the Consultation has been granted "special consultative status" as a nongovernmental organization (NGO) at the United Nations, where we can be sure "the distinguished representatives of ten world religions" will contend that their traditions support making access to abortion a right to be enshrined in international law. "We look forward to sharing our views and building coalitions with other progressive–minded NGOs," says Coalition president Maguire. He notes that "other religions and religious NGOs will have to be more vocal in pointing out that the Vatican does not speak for all Catholics. . . . There is more to the Catholic Church than the Catholic hierarchy, which historically tends more often than not to lag behind in the development of Catholic wisdom." Thus spake the galloping infallibility of the progressive–minded.
- The Methodist Church in Britain is considering whether to allow drinking alcoholic beverages at its annual conference. David Deeks, coordinator for church and society, said the issue was last discussed in 1987 and it is time to take it up again. "The majority view then, as now, was that there was scope for responsible individual drinking. I think that this view should now be reflected in the rules governing Methodist churches." Individual drinking? The biblical evidence distinctly suggests that this gift of God is intended for conviviality. Public abstinence joined to individual drinking, one might think, has been too much the pattern in the past among Christians who have a problem with spirits.
- Almost everywhere one goes, there are complaints about the sorry state of preaching. I suppose it has always been thus, and there is really no way to evaluate whether what is going on in the half million pulpits of America is better or worse than, say, a hundred years ago. But attention to good preaching is ever in order, and the most helpful attention is provided by good example. We should therefore be grateful to Doubleday for bringing out Tongues of Angels, Tongues of Men: A Book of Sermons, edited by John F. Thornton and Katharine Washburn (796 pp., $30). The list of notables represented here goes on and on: Clement of Rome, Francis of Assisi, the Cure d’Ars, John Donne, Hildegard of Bingen, Savonarola, Meister Eckhart, John Henry Newman, Billy Sunday, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fulton Sheen, Billy Graham, Karl Barth, Jonathan Edwards, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for examples. All the sermons are interesting, although not all should be emulated. The sermons of seventeenth–century John Tillotson, Archbishop of Canterbury, were bestsellers at the time. Taking as his text, "Speak evil of no man" (Titus 3:2), Tillotson goes on interestingly enough about the sins of gossip and slander, and concludes with this: "I foresee what will be said, because I have heard it so often said in the like case, that there is not a word of Jesus Christ in all this. No more is there in the text. And yet I hope that Jesus Christ is truly preached whenever his will and laws and the duties enjoined by the Christian religion are inculcated upon us." At the risk of speaking ill of Archbishop Tillotson, one can hardly imagine a homiletical formula better designed to guarantee the declension of Christian faith and life. But Tillotson is an exception. Obviously, this is not a book to be read in a sitting, but the 20 percent of our subscribers who are clergy might jump–start their homiletical efforts by regularly imbibing—from this book, that is. Other subscribers, especially those who are subjected to preaching that falls somewhat short of excellence—and it seems possible there are some—might consider making a well–targeted gift of this fine collection.
- James Carroll is back at the stand the New Yorker gives him from time to time. The last time we took note, he was hawking dissident German theologian Hans Küng’s thesis that the Catholic Church should acknowledge "co–responsibility" with Hitler for the Holocaust. In a subsequent article, he takes up the canonization of Edith Stein in "The Saint and the Holocaust." There is the usual flapdoodle about the Church wanting to "Christianize" the Holocaust, but then comes a novel twist suggesting that Stein was not really a Christian after all. He hones in on the story of a Dutch official who met her on the way to Auschwitz and expressed a willingness to help her because she was baptized. Stein is reported to have said in response, "Why should there be an exception made in the case of a particular group? Wasn’t it fair that baptism not be allowed to become an advantage?" The advantage to which she reportedly referred is, of course, an advantage relative to Hitler’s program of extermination. Her stand of solidarity with other Jews is given this spin by Carroll: "The true epiphany of Edith Stein’s story is that, in a visceral rejection of Christian theology, she refused to see the Jews as disadvantaged before God." Had she been a real Christian, Carroll gives his readers to understand, she would have been an anti–Semite.
- All right already, so we’ve heard enough about why Catholics can’t sing. So who is doing something about it? Funny you should ask, for I have just been receiving glowing reports on the work of Father Anthony Ruff at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, who pulled together an international conference on liturgical music last summer and is determined to make it an annual event. He also has ambitious plans for forming a national youth choir, but for that some heavy duty funding is required. This is, I believe, an important apostolate. For more information and to find out how you can help, contact Fr. Ruff at St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota 56321, phone (320) 363–3223, or e–mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
- "Ethnic cleansing" takes many forms. In December 1998, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic invited the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to help reduce the population of Kosovo. Milosevic’s minister for family concerns described Kosovar women as "baby machines," and indeed they do have a birthrate approximately four times the anemic 1.4 for Serbs, a rate far short of replacement. According to a study by the Virginia–based Population Research Institute, UNFPA responded with a massive program promoting contraception and abortion among Kosovars that continues to this day. The war in the Balkans was justified as "humanitarian intervention" against a policy based on the premise that there are too many Kosovars. The UNFPA, it seems, agrees with the premise, differing with Milosevic on the point of life at which excess population should be reduced.
- A 10 percent increase in abortions is associated with a 1 percent decrease in crime. That, report John Donohue of Stanford and Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago, is because the women who have most abortions—teenagers, the unmarried, and blacks—are more likely to have children who turn out to be criminals. Given the social costs of dealing with crime, they estimate that abortion is saving the U.S. about $30 billion per year through what Ramesh Ponnuru calls "preemptive capital punishment." Jonathan Swift, by way of contrast, was not really serious about his proposal for resolving the Irish problem.
- To paraphrase the title of an old movie, "They kill old people and cripples, don’t they?" Mention the Netherlands and that’s the question that comes to mind. For decades the Dutch have been in the vanguard of nations allowing euthanasia and doctor–assisted suicide. What was previously allowed is now to be formally legalized. A bill proposed to the parliament also allows children aged twelve and over to make their own euthanasia decisions, even against their parents’ objections, if a doctor consents. The aptly named Dr. Ben Crul of the Royal Dutch Medical Association supports the measure, noting that children with terminal illnesses are "a lot more grown–up than many adults." An official of the Justice Ministry says it’s a matter of consistency, since teenagers can already get contraceptive devices and abortions without their parents’ consent. It makes a kind of sense. Why shouldn’t those who have a right to kill also have a right to be killed? The culture of consistency, also known as the culture of death.
- The PBS showing of John Paul II: The Millennial Pope has come and gone, and on balance one must count it a plus. When producer Helen Whitney came to discuss the project several years ago, I was not at all sure what she was up to. I’m still not entirely sure, but I suspect she may be one crafty lady. It is true, for the talking heads in the two–and–a–half–hour program she rounded up the usual suspects—James Carroll, Hans Küng, et al.—to do their Pope–bashing routine, and the repeated theme was that of a Pope at war with modernity. But the actual footage from John Paul’s life and pontificate overwhelmed the standard silliness. And Ms. Whitney, in order to explain the Pope’s thinking on abortion, even sneaked in a substantial piece of Bernard Nathanson’s Silent Scream, the famous filming of the unborn child in the womb. Imagine, Silent Scream on PBS. The program’s treatment of Latin America and liberation theology was badly skewed. On that and many other questions, those who are looking for the inside story will want to read George Weigel’s splendid biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope. Yet Helen Whitney and her colleagues did a remarkable job in supplying so much on the man and the pontificate that would be new to all but a few viewers. Moreover, the final word was given to Roberto Suro of the Washington Post who expressed the fashionable reservations about John Paul but then ended with another thought: "On the other hand, you have to ask, is he a prophet? Did he come here with a message? Did he see something that many of us are missing? In that case, the tragedy is ours." I don’t know what other viewers made of the program. Study after study suggests that television does not so much change minds as reinforce what people already think. We see what we want to see. Making allowances for that, I am inclined to the view that, whatever she thought she was doing, Helen Whitney smuggled a powerful message through the hostile territory that is PBS.
- I’ve been having this little back–and–forth with the editors of the Houston Catholic Worker, who allege that I misrepresent Catholic social teaching on the market economy. They were most particularly exercised by my book Appointment in Rome: The Church in America Awakening. Their latest issue carries the headline, "Fr. Neuhaus Refuses to Recant." It sounds like 1521 all over again—"Here I stand" and all that. Except in this instance the Pope praises the book while the Houston editors, who in my judgment misunderstand the Church’s teaching, demand a recantation. They assert that I choose to "continue with a hard heart." I pray that is not the case. With a head as clear as it’s ever likely to get, I simply disagree with the editors. The problem with a quarrel, observed the great GKC, is that it interrupts a good argument. Catholic social doctrine is eminently worth arguing about.
- What a beautiful brouhaha. The Brooklyn Museum of Art scheduled a British show called "Sensation" and featuring, among other items designed to shock, carved–up animals floating in a tank of formaldehyde and the bust of a man made from his own frozen blood. Most attention was fixed on The Holy Virgin Mary, a painting by a young man by the name of Chris Ofili, which has clumps of elephant dung pasted on Mary and a background of bottoms and genitalia cut out of pornographic magazines. The papers played up Catholic protests against the exhibit, almost as though other Christians worship a Lord born of a different mother. But things really heated up when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said taxpayers shouldn’t pay for blasphemous schlock and threatened to cut off city funds for the Museum. The usual alarums about artistic freedom were raised, although from some surprising corners the point was made that nobody should be surprised if shock art elicits the reaction of shock politics. Hillary Clinton, who is presumably running against Giuliani for U.S. Senate, criticized the mayor’s threat to cut funds, but indicated that she was personally opposed to the porno and dung depiction of the Blessed Virgin. She said she would not go to see the show. Other museum directors in the city were strangely subdued because, it was said, they feared for their own city funding or, as others said, because they realized that the Brooklyn Museum had recklessly gone one outrage too far. Art critics at the Times, not surprisingly, defended the exhibit. It was repeatedly noted that Ofili is a Catholic and therefore the painting cannot be anti–Catholic. In addition, he is of African background and in some parts of Africa, or so they claimed, elephant dung is a symbol of fertility, and Ofili has also used it on other paintings. They did not claim that there is a distinctively African symbolic understanding of pornography. Carol Vogel of the Times tried to set straight opponents of the show: "While news reports have described his paintings as being splattered with dung, the clumps are actually carefully placed on each canvas." So there. Carefully placed dung is an entirely different matter. Back in London, Ofili says he is mystified by the controversy over the painting. "There’s something incredibly simple but incredibly basic about it. It attracts a multiple of meanings and interpretations," he said. Incredible is the word. He is currently working on a painting called "Magic Monkey" that tries "to capture the three powerful elements of life: sex, money, and drugs." These are represented by separate (and carefully placed) clumps of elephant dung and colored tops that he buys at the grocery store. Ofili’s paintings are selling briskly. One went for $36,000 last year, and it is expected that prices will soar as a result of the current row. Says noted collector Dean Valentine, "Of all the young British painters I think he’s by far the best. The paintings have a depth of expression. He has something to say." This is artistic self–parody and political soap opera of rare quality. From Paris 1914 and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to dung art in Brooklyn, one may be permitted to hope that this is the way a misguided inspiration ends, with a political bang and an artistic whimper.
- A rabbi friend observes that some Jews now have two slogans, "Never again!" and "Never enough!" The latter comes into notable play when the subject is the acknowledgment of Christian, and specifically Catholic, responsibility relative to the Holocaust. In "Contrition in the Age of Spin Control" (FT, November 1997), Mary Ann Glendon wrote in support of John Paul II’s call for Catholics to prepare for the new millennium by honestly examining the events of history and, when the evidence warrants it, confessing their failures. At the same time, Professor Glendon was concerned that some critics would never be satisfied "until Catholics apologize themselves into nonexistence." That concern is reinforced by Robert S. Wistrich’s "The Pope, the Church, and the Jews," in the April issue of Commentary. While the author’s language is generally restrained, the substance of his essay is an attack on Pius XII that gives every benefit of the doubt to the charges of less restrained critics of that much maligned Pope. The July/August issue of Commentary carries letters mainly in defense of Pius XII, some more persuasive than others. Particularly to the point is Eugene Fisher’s response to Wistrich’s criticism of the Holy See’s 1998 statement on the Holocaust. Fisher heads the office of interreligious affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and he writes: "Finally, Mr. Wistrich argues that We Remember endorses the view ‘that the Church as an institution was blameless during the Shoah.’ This is to misread a theological distinction. The document does distinguish between the Church as a human institution, on the one hand, and the Church as a sacramental, transcendent reality, ‘the Mystical Body of Christ,’ on the other. This is a classical Catholic distinction not found in Protestantism. It is the latter theological reality that the document quite understandably holds ‘blameless’ from the sins of the Church’s human members. But the Church as a human institution, the document teaches, can and must be held accountable for the sins of omission and commission of its members over the centuries and during the Shoah." Mr. Wistrich writes in response: "I was referring to the disheartening prospect that the Vatican’s final position on the Church’s ‘errors and failures’ would be to hold ordinary Christians responsible while maintaining that the institution itself was blameless. I now realize from Mr. Fisher’s theological distinction between the Church as ‘the Mystical Body of Christ’ and as a human institution that it is exactly as I feared." This is obtuse and, in light of Mr. Wistrich’s obvious intelligence, it is hard to think it is not willfully obtuse. The "members" of the Church referred to by Mr. Fisher obviously includes not only "ordinary Christians" but priests, bishops, cardinals, and, yes, popes. In Catholic teaching, the "sacramental, transcendent reality" of the Church is not exhausted by its members; the Church is more than her earthly members. The Church is sinless because she is the mystical body of the sinless Christ whose foremost member is the sinless Virgin Mary, joined by all the saints in glory; into which company we ordinary mortals are incorporated by the grace of God and called to emulate their holiness. Mr. Wistrich apparently thinks that Catholics should not believe what they do believe about the nature of the Church. Or else he simply thinks it not worth the bother to try to understand what the Church teaches. In either case, Mr. Fisher’s correction is not "exactly what [Mr. Wistrich] feared." His misrepresentation of what Mr. Fisher wrote is in the service of exactly what he chooses to believe. Which is a serious disservice to the truth, and to better understanding between Christians and Jews.
- Readers will remember William L. Saunders’ gripping account of the genocide being perpetrated in Sudan ("Christmas in Sudan," May 1999). As is typically the case in such circumstances, religious leaders worry about whether overt protest against an oppressive government will make things better or worse. But the Catholic bishops of Eastern Africa (including Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia) have now concluded that they have no choice but to try to rally world opinion against the atrocities committed by the Islamic government in Khartoum. Addressing the secretary general of the UN and other world leaders, they declare: "The Civil War in the Sudan has assumed savage, fratricidal, and genocidal dimensions for the last sixteen years. We came to know that it has claimed almost two million lives, most of them of innocent civilians. It has caused the displacement of over four million persons, many of whom are refugees within our Region. Furthermore the prolonged instabilities of the Sudan have affected the neighboring countries." The bishops understandably downplay the religious dimensions of the conflict, but it has been amply documented by human rights groups that the militant ("Islamist") regime has been using coercion on a massive scale, including slavery, to "convert" the Christian and animist population of the South to Islam. At the same time, and throwing doubt on the UN’s capacity or willingness to help, Christian Solidarity International, which has been active in redeeming captives from slavery, has had its NGO status sharply curtailed, and that upon the insistence of Sudan. You’re possibly not in the habit of writing your Congressman or Senator, but this is a time to do so. Maybe with nothing more than, "What are you doing about the religious persecution by the government of Sudan?" That way your representative cannot say that nobody cares.
- Subscribers wonder, sometimes with a note of irritation, why they get mailings inviting them to subscribe. The answer is that the computerized "purge" command is supposed to eliminate the names of present subscribers from lists used for mailings, but a difference of even one digit or letter in the name or address makes the dumb computer "think" this is an entirely different person. I’m told there’s not much to be done about that until computers get smarter. Solution: Pass the invitation on to a smart friend.
- A friend in Rome notes that L’Osservatore Romano refers to me as "direttore della rivista ‘First Tidings.’" Since Webster’s first definition of tidings is "pieces of news," he thinks the editors may read only The Public Square. On second thought, he suggests that, as in "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen," they have in mind "tidings of comfort and joy." I can live with either.
- Conventional wisdom has it that secularization of the United States is not nearly so deep or entrenched as it is in Western Europe, especially in Great Britain. It was once thought that a feature of "American exceptionalism" was its resistance to the secular forces rampant in Europe; now it is more accurate to speak of "European exceptionalism" from the religious revival underway in the rest of the world. Still, the case can be made that there is a more visible and articulate Christian culture in public life in Western Europe than in the United States. Try, for instance, to imagine the following, which ran on the front page of the London Times last December, appearing in any major U.S. newspaper.
"Then cometh the end . . ." (1 Corinthians 15:24).
The turning of the year for the Christian church is not New Year but Advent. This year Advent Sunday has a more than usual resonance, for it ushers in the last full cycle of the Christian festivals on the way towards the year 2000.
More and more the commerical cacophony of Christmas preparation has meant that the only Advent themes which have survived are those which look forward to the celebration of the birth of Christ. But there are other and starker Advent themes—the end of time, the Day of Judgment, the Christian longing for the Second Coming of Christ—a tension between the "already" and the "not yet," the urgent notes to "watch" and "wake up," and prayer that God will not delay. The Lord’s Prayer itself is an urgent Advent prayer. O come, O come Emmanuel! The great medieval antiphons of Advent with their longing, opening "O" embody the thirsting of all being for God’s fulfillment and deliverance, what St. Paul called the "groaning and travailing" of creation. There is a longing for an End that makes sense of it all.
Human beings are made for ends. Only at the end of lives can obituaries be written, and the whole life seen in some kind of perspective. "It sufficeth," said Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, "that the day will end and then the end is known." And when the End is known there is a judgment on what life is about, and what it is to be human.
Unlike the wheel of life of some Eastern traditions, the linear sense of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures gives time a significance and history a meaning.
The very first verse of Genesis speaks of a beginning, a shaping moment of creation. The Bible ends with a vision of a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth. At the center of that new creation is set the lamb of sacrifice. There at the heart of God’s life is the face of Christ in whose life Christians believe God emptied Himself, identifying completely with His creation, redeeming all time, so that every human life might find there a grace which gives meaning and purpose.
When the Christian Church speaks in language of Messianic expectation of the Christ who will come again in glory, the faith proclaimed is not primarily concerned with describing a descent of Christ from Heaven like an astronaut returning to Earth after a time in space. What it affirms is that there will be a final triumph of the love made known in Christ.
That is the horizon of history and the End for which Christians long. The scarecrow king enthroned in love on the cross is the king who at the end will establish his domain of justice, love, and peace. The God who judges is the God whose love goes to the uttermost. As St. John put it, "at the end He will examine thee in love," pointing to both the criterion and the character of judgment. Advent gathers hopes and longings and focuses them on Christ, from whose self–giving love all things owe their origin, and who is Omega, the End as well as the Beginning.
Sources: Russell Jacoby’s The End of Utopia reviewed by Andrew Sullivan, New York Times Book Review, June 13, 1999.
While We’re At It: Edmund Morris’ Dutch reviewed by Christopher Lehmann–Haupt, New York Times, September 30, 1999. On Roper Center poll of American habits and opinions, Public Perspective, February/March 1999. On Freedom House survey on political freedom and civil liberties, Wall Street Journal, December 30, 1998. National Catholic Reporter on visiting prisons, May 7, 1999. Clarke D. Forsythe on abortion and public opinion, Christianity Today, May 24, 1999. Katherine S. Newman’s No Shame in My Game reviewed by Alan Wolfe, New Republic, May 10, 1999. On Jews at Princeton, New York Times, June 2, 1999. John Miller and Ramesh Ponnuru on Alan Wolfe, National Review’s Internet Update, May 24, 1999. On the Lord’s Prayer being recited at high school commencement in Maryland, Linda Chavez column in Chicago Tribune, June 2, 1999. Ben Bova on the status of religiously based moral arguments, USA Today, June 8, 1999. Ad for "A Sacred Celebration" at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, New York Blade, June 18, 1999. Editorial quoting Thomas Fleming on U.S. foreign policy, Nation, June 28, 1999. James Twitchell’s Lead Us Into Temptation reviewed by Laura Landro, Wall Street Journal, June 22, 1999. Dennis Prager on Ronald Thiemann and pornography, Prager Report, May 1, 1999. Daniel C. Maguire on the RC Church, reproductive planning, etc., report of the Religious Consultation on Reproductive Health and Ethics, May 1999. On drinking and the Methodist Church in Britain, Tablet, June 12, 1999. James Carroll on Edith Stein, New Yorker, June 7, 1999. On UN program for contraception and abortion in Kosovo, ZENIT, September 10, 1999. Statistics on abortion and crime, Economist, August 14, 1999. On latest euthanasia bill being considered in the Netherlands, Life at Risk, July/August 1999. Appointment in Rome by Richard John Neuhaus, reviewed in Houston Catholic Worker, September/October 1999. On the Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibiting the painting The Holy Virgin Mary, New York Times, September 28, 1999. Robert S. Wistrich’s "The Pope, the Church, and the Jews," in Commentary, April 1999. On "First Tidings," L’Osservatore Romano, June 17, 1999. On Advent, London Sunday Times, November 29, 1998.